A revamp of Disco Pigs may be on hold, but Corcadorca have developed a new socially-distant work for the residents of various housing estates around Cork, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Anyone who was fortunate enough to see the original production of Disco Pigs, the epochal play written by Enda Walsh and staged by Cork theatre company Corcadorca in the 1990s, will recall what a gloriously raw and immediate experience it was.
Performed in small club-like spaces such as the Triskel in Cork and upstairs in the International Bar in Dublin, the play was propelled by the manic energy of the then unknown Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, carousing around a minimalist set, cheek by jowl with the audience.
Sadly, such a close theatrical encounter has, in the space of just a couple of months, become an almost inconceivable prospect, and instead we are relying on such halcyon memories to sustain us through the current drought of live performances.
In the wake of Disco Pigs, Corcadorca became renowned for its ambitious site-specific performances in locations from Spike Island to the city’s old waterworks. More recently, it has been developing work at the Triskel Arts Centre, where it was set to stage a play by Eadaoin O’Donoghue as part of this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival.
When the festival joined the long list of Covid-19 casualties, Corcadorca founder and artistic director Pat Kiernan was reluctant to throw in the towel.
“As a theatre company that was used to making work outside of theatres, I felt a responsibility to try to make something. Obviously it was all very quick, it wasn’t in the plan,” he says.
Corcadorca was better placed than most to stage an al fresco performance, which would adhere to the social distancing guidelines.
The result is Contact, a short visual piece, which will be staged in residential green areas around Cork city as part of Cork Midsummer Festival’s Midsummer Moments, a series of events that give the arts a presence in the city at a time of widespread cancellations.
While he salutes online initiatives such as the Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland series of short plays, for Kiernan, a virtual production was not an option.
“I have great admiration for it as an idea but for me it is not theatre — I think film and TV do all of that so much better. I really felt an urge to see if we could make something and just accept the conditions we are in, and find a theatrical idea or narrative in that.”
Kiernan found inspiration in the spontaneity of events such as the informal outdoor cinema projected on to a gable wall in a terrace of houses in Windmill Road in Cork.
I was certainly influenced by the guy who was doing that. I was thinking about bringing something to people’s homes, allowing them to witness something in the safest possible way and creating something unique within that.
“There is a fierce theatricality to all of this as well, the idea that you can’t touch someone, to use that as a theatrical convention. I saw somewhere a grandparent seeing their grandchild through the window for the first time, looking at this newborn infant…. I was interested in the idea of how can we make meaningful contact in the present circumstances.”
Contact features two performers, Eadaoin O’Donoghue and Cormac Mohally (possibly familiar as one half of Lords of Strut), and all work on the production up to the rehearsal point has been done remotely on video conferencing.
“There is no text, it is a visual, non-verbal piece and we have quite a clear outline of what is going to happen. We have also had a lot of design meetings and practical meetings regarding the guidelines, and that has been feeding into everything,” says Kiernan.
“In terms of logistics, everyone will be travelling independently, and a lot of it is about how much we can ideally pre-empt situations and organise ourselves as well as we can. We are looking at doing rehearsals outside. It is about everybody being self-sufficient, bring your own stuff, your own snacks, tea, coffee. We have marked-out positions as to where we will sit, at a distance, and obviously for the performance itself, the whole thing is that the actors can’t get close to each other.”
Kiernan says there is a certain excitement in working in such challenging circumstances, a back-to-basics feel that harks back to the early days of Corcadorca.
“There is definitely, with all of us working on it, a real appetite to make it. The Arts Council have been really good in that they have given us the opportunity to be able to do this. We are creators, we are artists so it was nice to be spontaneous and say ‘let’s just do something’.”
In terms of the overwhelming uncertainty facing theatre and the arts in general, Kiernan says State support is essential, but institutions and artists may have to become more creative in terms of producing work within current constraints.
“The reality for everybody, not just in the arts, is that money is going to be an issue because we are running out of it fast. Usually arts budgets are the first thing to go. The National Campaign for the Arts has been set up to ensure that doesn’t happen. Other countries are putting plans into place to look after the sector long-term.
“In some ways, we are in an unusual position in that we are used to making work outside of buildings and theatres. For people who are running theatres, it is incredibly difficult right now. Outside of the reality of when people will be allowed in, capacities with social distancing are unsustainable.”
Kiernan also recognises that many people may not be comfortable putting themselves in a closed theatre environment. “As a theatre-maker, it is about trying to make work that can happen with social distancing.
“We were looking at doing a new production of Disco Pigs, in a really sweaty tiny box of the Triskel, like it was done originally. That can’t happen now, and I don’t think it can happen next year. Disco Pigs was made to be experienced in a certain way. It may be that we need to think about making different experiences.”
Corcadorca’s Contact runs from June 11 -14, and June 18-21, with two shows on each of those eight nights taking place on greens across Cork city. Corcadorca will not be publicising performance times or any of the locations.
“There won’t be any information until very close to the performance, and then only to the residents of the places we go to,” says Pat Kiernan.
We will be going to 16 different locations, and we are still working with the City Council on that. We will be doing a geographic spread. The idea is that we put it on where there is a green, surrounded by houses.
According to Kiernan, the set-up of the show will be part of the spectacle itself.
“There is a theatricality in the elements being set up, and also in terms of us obeying the guidelines. For me, the performance begins as soon as we get there. The crew will be setting up, with suits, masks, disinfectant, hoses.
“We erect a perspex wall between the characters and they then come to meet each other in that context. It will be half-an-hour or a little over, we will be in and out. The take-down will be the same time again, then back to our vans and cars, and we will be gone again.”